Book review: Inventing the Individual - how Christianity enabled liberalism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 February, 2015, 10:45am


Inventing the Individual
by Larry Siedentop
Belknap Press

Here, from 700 years ago, is a decree from Louis X of France: "As according to the law of nature each must be born free ... many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called ... the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name ... have ordered that ... such servitudes be brought back to freedom ..."

So serfdom was abolished. True, freedom had to be purchased, so it was a revenue-gathering exercise, as well as the monarchy getting the jump on feudal lords; but the principle is sound. Like many, I had assumed that notions of individual liberty didn't come into play until the end of the age of Enlightenment. It was to do with Voltaire, perhaps, or the American Declaration of Independence. If the Church had anything to do with individuality, it was as a brake. We were all just anonymous units before the power of God.

Larry Siedentop shows that the picture is much more complex. In fact, he claims, it is Christianity we have to thank, particularly the Christianity of the dark and early medieval ages, for our concept of ourselves as free agents. He starts in ancient Greece and Rome where the faculty of reason was only to be found in the ruling elite. If you were a woman, merchant or slave, all you could really use your brains for were, respectively, gossip, calculation and obedience. However, seeds were sown, and things got interesting when Greek- and Latin-speaking urban dwellers started encountering the Jewish diaspora.

"Just what was it that, rather suddenly, made Jewish beliefs so interesting? It was partly imagery. The image of a single, remote and inscrutable God dispensing his laws to a whole people corresponded to the experience of people subjugated to the Roman imperium."

This is the beginning of a thoughtful jaunt through several centuries of developing theological and legal thinking. The stars are Augustine, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham: he of the famous razor, the injunction that "it is futile to work with more entities when it is possible to work with fewer".

This is not a book to take on a beach holiday; it is chewy, involved stuff, and if at times it looks as though Siedentop is repeating himself, you may well be grateful, as I was, because you might not have got it first time round. But once you get past the superficial difficulties its basic principle - "that the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for what became an unprecedented form of human society" - is mind-bending.

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